Material for an inflatable thermal shield that could be used to recover small payloads from the International Space Station (ISS) has undergone a second high-temperature test.

On 7 April, a one-fifth scale model of the shield covered with an ablative material was subjected to high temperatures in a wind tunnel that produces high-energy plasma (ionised gas). In the January test, the wind tunnel reached 1,400¡C (2,500¡F).

The vehicle's protective ablative material was eroded by the plasma as predicted and it experienced thermal and mechanical stress during its 95-second test. This simulated an impact with the atmosphere at 230,000ft (70,000m).

In the next few months the vehicle, equipped with more instrumentation, will be tested at different plasma levels and higher temperatures. The shield is inflatable to make it easier to transport to the ISS. The test was conducted at the Italian aerospace research centre's (CIRA's) plasma wind tunnel in Capua, 50km (30 miles) from Naples, which claims to be the biggest and most powerful such tunnel in service.

The work to develop inflatable technology is wholly Italian. Aprilia-based Aero-Sekur is the European Space Agency's prime contractor for the shield. The ESA budget for the project is €950,000 ($1.1 million).

Inflatable re-entry technology was originally developed by Deutsche Aerospace and Russian aerospace company Lavochkin and tested as early as 2000. A 145kg (320lb) inflatable technology demonstrator, built by Lavochkin, had a sub-orbital flight test on 12 July 2002. It is not clear if that test was successful.




Source: Flight International